The Dual Self in Bradstreet’s “The
Flesh and the Spirit”:
The Never-Ending Conflict between
Good and Evil
A colonial Puritan minister, Thomas Shepard, nicely summarized the
paradox of the Puritan religion when
he noted that “The greatest part of Christian grace lies in mourning the want of it.” Shepard suggests, in this passage, that good Christians should spend their days, indeed their entire lives, exploring and proclaiming their own depravity and sinfulness, their “want” of Christian
grace. Paradoxically, only this kind of a life could lead, ultimately, to the possible attainment of God’s grace and thus entrance into heaven. For the
Puritans, such a formula posed a never-ending, internal conflict: good Christians who hope for grace can never believe that they are worthy of such grace. Indeed, Puritans who
want to be moral and upright must constantly keep in mind the fact that they are sinful and wicked and not deserving of God’s attention, much less admittance to heaven.
The paradox of Shepard’s passage is
one that the early Puritans not only firmly believed but also lived day in and day out. As a central tenet of
their existence, this paradox led Puritans to experience a constant internal struggle between two aspects of the Puritan self: the sinful, wicked side and the redeemed, saved side. Significantly, the struggle became a common motif in many
Puritan works, including Anne
Bradstreet’s “The Flesh and the Spirit.” In this poem, Bradstreet
describes not only the dual self that
was the result of Puritan theology but also the psychological significance of the Puritan paradox. “The Flesh and
the Spirit” demonstrates that the road to attainment of grace, and thus to salvation, lies not in resolving the conflict between the two aspects of the Puritan self but rather in
maintaining, until death, the tension between the sinful self and the redeemed self.
The opening lines of “The Flesh and the Spirit” set up the psychological dimensions of the poem, suggesting that the dialogue that follows exists in the narrator’s mind. The narrator
In secret place where once I stood;
Close by the banks of Lacrim flood,
I heard two sisters reason on
Things that are past and things to
come . . . .
The reference to “Lacrim flood” suggests that this “secret place” is one of mourning, where the narrator experiences a great deal of grief. The “two sisters” that the narrator overhears represent the two aspects of the
Puritan self: the first, called “flesh,” “had her eye / On worldly wealth and vanity” and thus represents the
sinful, wicked side; the second, called “Spirit,” “did rear / Her thoughts unto a higher sphere” and thus represents the redeemed
side. Because the narrator is listening in a “secret place” and because the ensuing dialogue between Flesh and
Spirit is not in quotation marks, the narrative of the poem should be conceived of as occurring in the narrator’s psyche and thus as
dramatizing the internal struggle of
the Puritan self.
The dialogue begins with Flesh chastising Spirit for her concern with spiritual matters and suggesting that she turn to earthly matters and thus put an end to their struggle. Flesh asks of Spirit:
What liv’st thou on,
Nothing but meditation?
Doth contemplation feed thee so
Regardlessly to let earth go?
Can speculation satisfy
Notion without reality?
Flesh suggests that the things of the spirit—“meditation,” “contemplation,” and “speculation”—cannot possibly be
as satisfying and fulfilling as the things of the earth—“honor,” “riches,” and
“pleasure” —and thus that Spirit should reject spiritual matters for
earthly: “Take thy fill, / Earth hath
enough of what you
will” . Significantly, Flesh attempts
to break down the barrier between the sinful and the redeemed selves in order to bring about an end to the dual self.
Yet such a resolution of conflict could only lead to damnation, and the Spirit replies that she will maintain the conflict until death. Spirit tells Flesh:
I have vowed (and so will do)
Thee as a foe still to pursue,
And combat with thee will and must,
Until I see the laid in th’ dust.
Spirit not only resists Flesh’s temptations of earthly matters, but
insists that such resistance will be the hallmark of their relationship until death. Rather than seeking to
reconcile the conflict and thus bring an end to the dual self, Spirit suggests that they will remain in “combat”:
Sisters we are, yea, twins we be,
Yet deadly feud ’twixt thee and me;
For from one father are we not,
Thou by old Adam was
That the Spirit and the Flesh are “Sisters” who are linked until death again suggests that the narrative of this poem be read as the psychological dramatization of the internal struggle of the narrator. The Spirit here suggests, then, that they cannot be separated in this life, and that they must remain in a never-ending battle. Paradoxically, even though they are “Sisters” and “twins,” they are locked into a dire
struggle because of their different
origins: Spirit originates “from
above” while Flesh originates from Adam’s sin.
In maintaining the conflict between the Flesh and the Spirit, the narrator continually reminds herself of her depravity and thus questions her spiritual worthiness; indeed, as the Spirit suggests, she has occasionally given in to the demands of the Flesh with disastrous consequences. The Spirit notes in her dialogue with Flesh:
How oft thy slave, hast thou me
When I believed what thou hast said,
And never had more cause of woe
Than when I did what thou bad’st
The Spirit here admits her weakness and suggests that occasionally she
has succumbed to the desires of the Flesh rather than maintaining the conflict. While admitting the failure of the Spirit might seem to implicate the narrator in sinfulness and relegate her to eternal damnation, awareness of depravity and lack of God’s grace, as Thomas Shephard notes, is the
paradoxical pathway to salvation. While the conclusion of “The Flesh and the Spirit” describes the heavenly city,
New Jerusalem, that the good Puritan
will attain, the poem itself ends in a hopeful, not a certain, stance, insisting on the preeminence of the struggle while in this life. The narrator notes: “The city where I hope to dwell, / There’s none on earth can
parallel . . .” . In the detailed
description of this heavenly city that follows, the Spirit borrows heavily
from the bible, the center piece of the Puritan religion, and asserts that only
the redeemed self, not the wicked self, will abide there: “This city pure is
not for thee, / For things unclean there shall not be” . Thus, only in death can the sisters separate and the struggle come to an end; indeed, the last two lines of the poem reassert the struggle that exists in this life through its less than certain tone: “If I of heaven may
have my fill, / Take thou the world and all that will”. The Spirit does not
conclude here that she will ascend into heaven, but only that she hopes that salvation might be hers; such an awareness of the lack of certain grace, of course, must be maintained in this life if the narrator is to remain a dutiful Puritan.